The sharp eyed will notice that at this point in the journey we were the only passengers on the train apart from two conductors, the driver and someone who seemed to be a peripatetic cleaner.
We had slept badly – sharing a three quarter bed requires some organisational ability – and with the threat of an early start hanging over us, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns crowded for attention. How long would it take to drive to Pwllheli? (27 mins). Would we find a parking space? (Yes) where was the railway station? ( 2 mins away at the end of the street). And so the allowances of extra time soon aggregated and we arrived at he station with just over half a hour to spare.
There must be circumstances when a half-hour wait for a train might involve lolling in the sunshine on a seat commemorating the deceased owner of a local clothes peg factory. Not so for us. We were in the midst of a storm of the type that blows so hard and so wet that your expensive mountain raincoat pockets fill with freezing water via the gaps in the zips. Opposite the station was a Costa with a couple of people who looked as if their wives had kicked them out and were trying to book a hotel on their laptops. We opted for the station cafe which had a more cheerful look about it – Christmas lights pressed into service for the first day of Lent and a huge range of all-day breakfasts with amusing names served up by a girl who looked as if she actually enjoyed being there. Our train pulled in and the driver rushed in, ordered and ate a prodigious breakfast in a couple of minutes and we followed him, his ulcer and his dicky heart back on to the empty train.
The fare was billed as £18 each for an ‘anytime return’ – I think there must be some passengers who arrive at Machynlleth and don’t feel the need to explore beyond the car park and the industrial estate, and get straight back on the next train home. Anyway, the conductor consulted her nifty handheld replacement for the entire booking office and said she could “do it for £13” – which was a bit of a first – possibly a dreadful weather discount?
The tourist guide, however, is entirely accurate. It really must be “one of the most scenic railway lines in the whole of Britain”. Sensibly, in a mountainous region, the line doesn’t just hug the coast, there were times when it was the coast. The seas, big and grey, were being whipped up by wind gusts of up to 65mph and breaking over the great boulders that protected the coastline. Waves ten feet high and more, were capped with white foam. Wherever we moved away from the coast the intervening land was sodden, often flooded and populated by miserable looking sheep huddled against any windbreaks they could find – and, my goodness, some of the stone walls were approaching five feet thick, possibly they doubled as footpaths during spring tides and floods.
Two and a half hours is a long time for a journey that would take about an hour by road, but I was fully occupied with the scenery, and the prounciation of the tiny station names as we stopped at a series of halts, clumps of grass and an abandoned MOD site. It was as if we’d got into a groundhog day somewhere near Adlestrop. How can a place name have so many letters but lack a single vowel? I know the answer to that because I once ran some writers workshops for the Welsh Academy in the Welsh Valleys, and I had to learn how to pronounce place names so I could get about on the local buses. But although Welsh is a phonetic language, the diphtongs are incredibly tricky and the stress on the last but one syllable often catches me out. Nonetheless it is the ‘queen of languages’ as my Greek tutor (a Welshman) used to say.
If there’s a downside to the coastline it’s the proliferation of caravan sites at the edge of the sea – probably empty for nine months of the year, they look like abandoned intensive farms: hafodydd (summer dwellings) for thousands of people escaping their unique versions of ‘everyday life’. As we crossed the long viaduct at Barmouth the train felt as if it was flying slowly and noisily over the water. I’ve looked at photographs of that structure so many times, and it was an ambition fulfilled actually to cross it – so, soon enough, having taken a detour up a long valley, the train pulled into Machynlleth station where it would become part of another train to Birmingham.
I had carefully planned the afternoon and I knew that the restaurant I’d booked, and the gallery (MOMA) we wanted to see were both within easy walking distance. But you will know that when you plan days out, you don’t normally factor-in storm force winds and 18mm of rain. This turned an easy walk, punctuated by pauses to look at artisanal shoemakers and interesting bookshops to something akin to wading up the Amazon. Cars detoured into deep puddles in order to give us a proper soaking and my right arm had to be extended several times in a single finger greeting accompanied by obscene curses heard by no-one at all.
Did I just write ‘restaurant’? From 25 yards I read the word ‘bistro’ and as we burst through the door propelled by the storm, the word became café. Good luck to them: we were the only customers and they served us decent reviving food and a couple of glasses of wine as we watched hapless townspeople being washed down the street crying for help . The hairdresser in the shop opposite was equally under-employed and soon abandoned his attempt to smoke a cigarette outside as water flooded in torrents down from the blocked gutters. The whole world was a monochrome of grey slate and reflected white, like the parody of a Kyffin Williams painting. My new Tilley hat, the “Outback” model in waxed cotton had performed admirably with strong pegs driven into my ears but its broad brim had collected about half a pint of rainwater that ran down the waiter’s hands and on to her trainers as she took it from me. However she was kind enough to say that since we’d arrived she’d turn on the heating.
An hour later we struggled around to MOMA – the gallery of modern Welsh art – in search of anything by John Dickson Innes and found the door locked against the wind. This led to a very friendly personal greeting as we were admitted by the (volunteer?) receptionist who confessed that she’d never heard of JD Innes and didn’t know whether they’d got any. After a phone call she admitted that they did have a couple of his paintings but they were in storage which could mean any one of a number of facilities across the town while they wait for a purpose-built store to be constructed. Innes was a terrific and underrated painter whose death – aged only 27 – ended a career that would surely have eclipsed his friend Augustus John.
So back to the train for the return journey, but this time it became the ‘school bus’ for several dozen young people. As per Adlestrop, people came and went in the rain but this time the pre-recorded station announcements somehow got out of synch and each station was hailed exactly one stop early. No-one seemed to be fooled by this, and eventually the conductor turned the machine off and did the announcements himself – which gave me the chance to compare his pronunciation of the place names with the satnav versions in the morning. ‘Little things please little minds’ – as the teenage girls on the train might well have said when they were rehearsing a put-down for use in later life. A small drama unfolded as various girls attended to one of their number who had locked herself in the toilet in tears. A drunk man got properly told off by someone for attempting to take photographs of the children on his phone. Madame fell asleep holding my hand under the table out of deference to the schoolchildren who can’t cope with displays of affection by old people.
Then, as we passed the old Butlins site, we spotted the sun shining weakly in the sky, like a torch reflected in a steel bowl, and as we pulled into the station it stopped raining at last. I do love the Welsh and their country – not so keen on the weather, though.